Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Adventure 20/50 : Climbing Mount Fuji

When we decided to go to Japan, we had a lot of things we wanted to do. But the number one thing on my list was climbing Mount Fuji -- #fuji@50

We didn't train much -- not enough hiking over the summer -- but I had done my research and booked the mountain hut so, well, we were going to make a go of it.

We took the highway bus from Shinjuku bus station to the 5th Station.

The signage was excellent, but it was pretty easy to spot the right gate -- it's the one full of people wearing climbing gear and carrying rucksacks. The bus had reserved seats and we were right up front ... largely because I had booked tickets the morning they became available... We did see a pair of western tourists who had to sit separately because they hadn't booked tickets until that morning, and others who had to wait for later buses. Lesson #1: book your bus tickets in advance!

The ride was totally uneventful, and we hopped off the bus at the 5th Station to crowds and clouds.  Best practice is to spend about an hour at that elevation (2300m) when coming from sea-level Tokyo ... but we were antsy and because we didn't want to pick up stuff until we came down the mountain, we put our unnecessary things in a locker and headed to the trailhead after about 35 minutes.

The first stretch was DOWNHILL, and I remember thinking we'd be grumpy about it on the way back.

Amusingly, a large tour group left at about the same time we did, which meant we were moving through them for the first stretch of trail.

The trail was pretty gentle at first, and we were surprised at how quickly we reached the 6th station. That said, it's under 2KM in distance, and only gains about 90m in elevation. But the weather seemed like it was shifting, so we moved through the crowds and kept going up.

The trail got steeper after the 6th station, but it was really clearly marked and we just moved along. 

I'm not sure if it's clear how steep this is, but the trail is wide and well graded, with lots of switchbacks. Every so often I'd let myself sneak peeks up the hill.

One great thing about Fuji -- it's absurdly well marked and you're never more than 100 meters from a signpost telling you exactly where you are on the trail. There's no wayfinding for the most part ... you just follow the trail and go. Only 4.3km straight up! (Not really straight up... but thattaway...)

Soon we were approaching the first of the mountain huts. There are 14 huts on the mountain where climbers can stay. We were climbing at the end of the season (we climbed on September 4, the season ended September 10) so a lot of the huts were closed, and most others were full -- even on a Tuesday. Lesson #2: book your place in a mountain hut well in advance!

The closer we got to the huts, the rockier it got. Again, there was no confusion of where to go, but it did get more challenging. Just stay between the ropes (and don't hold on -- they're just markers).

Very soon we arrived at our mountain hut, 7th Station Tomoe-kan:

I had selected our hut based on a couple of recommendations -- and because they offer a few "private accommodations" rather than just the open bunks. We arrived, were told the basic rules about dinner time (5pm), breakfast (pick it up at dinner), footwear (no boots in the house, there are separate slippers for the sleeping area and the bathroom area), and the toilets (signs say 200 yen; residents only pay 100 yen), and then we were shown to our cubby. 

I'll be honest -- it's bigger and more comfortable than I expected. We had a bottom bunk (win!) that was plenty wide for 2 people, and had lots of blankets which we definitely needed in the night. We also had a window we could open for fresh air, and a view ... of the people coming up the trail.

The view from the window:

As the clouds rolled in I remembered one other "feature" of Tomoe-kan... custard cream CLOUD BREAD. I had read that they were only available in limited amounts each day, so when I heard a group coming up the hill, and being told IN ENGLISH that they should try the cloud bread, I hustled us out to the living room. 

We bought two and settled down to try them. Each one had a "stamped" top:

... and was filled with delicious custard.

We decided to conduct our other relevant business, too, before relaxing. What relevant business, you ask? GETTING OUR STICK BRANDED!!!

It's very popular to buy a stick at the 5th station and get it branded as you move up the mountain. Many of them are proper walking sticks, but we already have trekking poles and I don't know how we would have gotten a big walking stick home. Of course, enterprising shops offered SHORT STICKS, which is what we picked up. That's Tomoe-kan's resident brand-master working on my stick. 

The hut -- like all the huts -- sold snacks and drinks and meals to passerby. They also sold towels and shirts, but we didn't feel like carrying them up the mountain. Unsurprisingly, the higher up the mountain you went, the more expensive things were. 

I was having a slight sadness about staying so low down the mountain -- knowing it would make for a longer day the next day. I chatted with a guy who was climbing alone, and was staying up at the 8th station. He asked where we were staying, and I said, "here" ... and he said, "Oh... didn't feel like going any higher?" Ouch. 

After exhausting the entertainment offered by the hut (in all of 15 minutes or so), we moved into our cubby to relax and hang out. And then a light drizzle the had been going off and on since just before arrived at the hut turned into a full-blown thunderstorm, and I was Very Glad that we had chosen to stay lower down. 

We sat in the hut watching the rain and the storm, feeling sorry for the people still struggling up the trail. 

Eventually we went to the main room for dinner. 

We were sat next to some other western tourists -- so the staff only needed to explain things in English once, I suspect. We received our breakfasts -- and were a teensy bit sad not to get the rice, egg, and salmon the omnivores were served ... instead getting two fruit rolls. But it meant we had vegetarian curry for dinner, along with some Japanese pickles, so that was still a win. 

The room is decorated with "maneki", the signboards of the "fujiko". 

No, I didn't know that until I read this helpful sign:

Our tablemates were going to get up at midnight and start climbing in the dark, in the hopes of being at the summit for sunrise. We.... well, weren't that keen. We decided that we'd get up when we got up, have our breakfast, and start climbing. Simple as that. 

After dinner we retired back to our cubby and -- total honesty -- spent several hours just looking out the window and relaxing. And it was great. Oh, and RAINBOW!!!

We woke up early -- but weren't woken by the mass exodus between midnight and 1am. Slept straight through that, so thank you, Tomoe-kan neighbors! Got dressed and took our breakfast bags to the main room, where we sipped hot tea, nibbled buns, and then headed out to watch the sunrise. Who needs to be at the crater rim when you can see this from your breakfast table?

We didn't linger long -- though we took the obligatory #sunriseselfie

We set off up the trail from our hut... climbing right away. BTW, I took this picture of the route the day before in case it was really dark when we started moving. It wasn't, but this is the only pic I have of the start of our second day...

Up we went, moving past the other 11 huts slowly but surely. We stopped at a few to admire the view and take short breaks. This is the balcony at Kamaiwakan, higher up on the 7th station.

I was amazed at how barren, but how diverse the mountain was. Everyone thinks that Fuji is snowcapped, but by late summer it's just dry. 

And all morning, we just went up.

Every so often we'd think we were glimpsing the summit / crater rim... but nope.

In some ways, our experience on Kilimanjaro served us very well here. Obviously it's nowhere near as high, but the memory of just slowly moving up the mountain, slow and steady. Pole pole and all that. 

Best of all -- and I know I keep saying it -- but we never didn't know which way to go.

We started watching the "remaining time" and the "remaining distance" pretty keenly. We were moving faster than the expected time, but still those last 200m seemed LOOOONG.

So close! We could see the buildings on the rim!

Closer... closer ...

And we reached the last torii gate, welcoming us to the rim! (And, yes, that's my finger on the lens...)

We were so happy not to be queuing at this point, which climbers hoping to catch the sunrise usually have to do. We got to the top, looked at the map...

... and wandered around a bit. We went to the little shop -- not our scene -- and then stopped at the shrine on the urging of a Japanese man who told us that most Japanese people would go to the shrine. While there, we had our stick stamped (this one wasn't a brand, it was an inked stamp that was pounded into the wood. Chop chop! Afterward, the priest gave me a small amulet to give me safety while climbing mountains. I attached it to my pack and we wandered out to the rim.

We wandered around, then -- honestly -- remembered that we hadn't brushed our teeth at the hut, so we brushed out teeth. At the top of Mount Fuji. Knowing it would thrill our dental hygienist.

After a bit, we started down the hill. We had been told that the way down -- a different route than the way up, to reduce crowding and to make things safer -- was all switchbacks. But what we didn't realized was that IT WAS ALL SWITCHBACKS.

It was very steep, but the plowed trails were very wide and we just made our way down down down into the fog.

We actually stopped a few times to take breaks on the way down, because it actually took longer to get from the summit to the 5th station than it did to go up from the 7th station to the summit.

We had been warned to look out for a spot where the two trails split -- "climbers can get lost in the fog". But being Japan, there were signs saying "trails split in 100 meters" and "trails split in 50 meters", plus a message playing in Japanese, English, and Chinese, PLUS a man with big airport signal lights pointing everyone in the right direction. We did get a surprise, however when he told us that it would be another 3 hours to the 5th station. WHAT???

But we kept heading down, totally uneventfully. Just over 2 hours left from here:

The fog did get very thick, with other climbers disappearing quickly into it. Once we could hear a bulldozer but couldn't see it until it was very close. But finally we dropped into the vegetation zone, and just kept moving until we hit the 6th station.

At the 6th station we made a donation to protect the mountain and received nice little wooden amulets... and then kept on. As expected, the annoying uphill stretch at the end was, indeed, annoying.

But eventually we arrived at the 5th line station, surprisingly early in the day, and tried to decide what to do next. After visiting the shrine:

... and doing some shopping, there wasn't much else to do until we could check in to our capsule hotel... but that's another adventure for another day.


  1. Congratulations on another summit and good dental hygiene!